The Atlas V booster rocket carries NASA's MAVEN Mars probe high into the atmosphere shortly after launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., at 1:28 p.m. EST.
NASA's next mission to Mars will do one specific thing -- it will analyze the red planet's atmosphere in an effort to peel back the mystery of its evolution and try to understand why it thinned out so drastically, turning a once wet world into a barren wasteland. The $671 million Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) orbiter, which is scheduled for launch at 1:28 p.m. EST on Nov. 18, is a Martian climate change probe capable of making unprecedented observations of the planet's atmosphere. It will even, on occasion, swoop low to directly sample the tenuous upper atmospheric gases. MAVEN is the latest in a series of Mars missions that are piecing together Mars' water history, organic chemistry and past and present habitability. Shown here, MAVEN sits atop an Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., before launch on Monday afternoon.NEWS: Mars Probe to Study How Planet Lost Its Water
After launch, MAVEN will take 10 months to reach its destination, arriving in Mars orbit on Sept. 22, 2014. NASA's previous Mars mission -- the Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover -- took only 8 months to reach Gale Crater, arriving on Aug. 6, 2012. Interestingly, MAVEN isn't the only orbiter with a planned rendezvous in September 2014. The Indian Mangalyaan Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which launched on Nov. 5, is scheduled to arrive at Mars two days after MAVEN, on Sept. 24, 2014. Mangalyaan is taking a little longer to get to Mars due to its series of Earth flybys that have gradually increased its speed and orbital distance, eventually propelling it Mars-wards.NEWS: Liftoff! India's First Mars Probe Launches
When it arrives in Mars orbit, MAVEN will be the beefiest satellite in the current Mars orbiter fleet; NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), NASA's Odyssey and Europe's Mars Express are all lightweights in comparison. MAVEN (the spacecraft plus propellents) weighs 2,550 kilograms (5,620 pounds) at launch. In comparison, the MRO was 2,180 kilograms (4,810 lb), Odyssey was 376 kilograms (829 lb) and Mars Express was 1,123 kg (2,476 lb) at launch. The ISRO's Mangalyaan spacecraft has a launch mass of 1,337 kg (2,948 lb). In addition to its impressive mass, MAVEN has a "wingspan" (from one end of deployed solar panels to the other) of 11.4 meters (37.5 feet).PHOTOS: The Psychedelic Landscape of Mars
Once encircling Mars, MAVEN will have a rather extreme orbit. At closest approach (perapsis), MAVEN will zoom within 150 kilometers (93 miles) of the Martian surface. But due to its planned highly elliptical orbit, the satellite will fly out to a maximum distance (apsis) of 6,000 km (3,728 miles). On 5 occasions during its primary mission, MAVEN will drop even lower on close approach, coming to within 124 km (77 miles) of the surface. On those occasions, MAVEN will be able to directly sample some of the upper atmospheric gases and analyze them.PHOTOS: Top 10 Weirdest Mars Illusions and Pareidolia
What happened to Mars? Evidence is piling up that the red planet used to have more in common with Earth in its early history. We know that large bodies of water used to persist across what are now barren, dry plains. Rivers even used to flow, eroding Mars rock into pebbles. The puzzle of Mars' predominantly dry appearance can be blamed on its atmosphere -- an atmosphere with a pressure of 1 percent that of Earth's. What atmospheric processes caused Mars to lose its water? MAVEN will take on this challenge to try to understand whether the atmosphere was vented into space naturally; if the water was lost through atmospheric processes or is currently locked in the Martian crust; and try to understand the interplay between the sun's ferocious solar wind and Mars' upper atmosphere.NEWS: Water Discovery Is Good News for Mars Colonists
MAVEN is carrying 8 sophisticated instruments all designed to tackle every aspect of Mars' climate history and how the planet's atmosphere interacts with interplanetary space. MAVEN's suite of instrumentation will: directly sample atmospheric gases; spectroscopically analyze the atmospheric composition; measure the planet's magnetic field and the interplanetary magnetic field; detect the interaction of energetic solar particles with atmospheric gases; and analyze ionospheric heating. The Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) package will be used to measure the isotopes of atmospheric gases. These data, in turn, will be compared with the Mars Science Laboratory's isotopic analyses, aiding a better understanding of how much of the atmosphere has been lost over time.NEWS: Mars' Once Thick Atmosphere Now Kaput
Sadly, due to budget constraints, MAVEN does not have an instrument to detect atmospheric methane. Other missions have detected trace amounts of the organic compound that may or may not be linked with microbial life on Mars. Most recently, Curiosity was used to "sniff" the air around Gale Crater for any sign of the gas -- it detected none, only adding to the mystery surrounding Mars' methane mystery.NEWS: Mystery of Mars' Missing Methane Deepens
The current Mars orbiters aren't only carrying out science; they also form an essential relay network for communications between Earth and NASA's rover missions (and future surface missions). MAVEN is packing a powerful Electra radio system that will contribute to the communications between Curiosity, Opportunity and mission control, allowing a data transfer rate of up to 10Mbps.
Mars Probe to Study How Planet Lost Its Water by Irene Klotz
NASA MAVEN Fact Sheet
NASA launched its newest Mars probe toward the Red Planet Monday (Nov. 18) on a mission to determine how the Martian atmosphere transformed the world into the desolate wasteland it is today.
The robotic spacecraft, called the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution probe (MAVEN), launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station here at 1:28 p.m. EST (1828 GMT), beginning a 10-month journey to Mars.
"Liftoff of the Atlas 5 with MAVEN, looking for clues about the evolution of Mars through its atmosphere," NASA launch commentator George Diller said as the rocket climbed into a cloudy Florida sky. [See photos from MAVEN's launch to Mars]
If all goes well, MAVEN should arrive at Mars on Sept. 22, 2014, mission scientists have said.
A Mars Atmosphere Mystery
The school-bus-size MAVEN spacecraft is heading to Mars to gather data about how the Martian climate has changed over time. MAVEN will study the planet's upper atmosphere, investigating the solar wind environment and other factors that could have caused the planet to lose its atmosphere to space.
Today, the atmosphere of Mars is only about 1 percent as thick as that of the Earth; however, scientists think that hasn't always been the case. Based on data collected by other Mars orbiters and rovers on the surface, researchers think that Mars was once a wet and warm world with a thick atmosphere.
The $671 million MAVEN probe is expected to make it into orbit around Mars on Sept. 22, 2014, but before that, the spacecraft might be able to observe a potentially dazzling comet passing through the inner solar system. Comet ISON, set to make its closest pass by the sun at the end of this month, could shine brightly from Earth, but MAVEN's ultraviolet camera could catch sight of the comet as soon as Dec. 10. [NASA's MAVEN Mars Probe: 10 Surprising Facts]
"Many of the same gasses that are present in the Mars atmosphere are also present in comets," Nick Schneider, lead scientist for MAVEN's Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph Instrument lead, told the press before launch. "What an ideal opportunity for us to try out our instrument and do some good science along the way … If we have time, we should get some really great observations in the ultraviolet of Comet ISON."
More Robots Around Mars
NASA's MAVEN isn't the only probe on its way to Mars. On Nov. 5, the Indian space agency launched its first Mars spacecraft— called Mangalyaan — and it is schedule to arrive at the Red Planet two days after MAVEN, on Sept. 24.
MAVEN's team and the Mangalyaan team could eventually help one another with data sharing and observations from the two spacecraft, mission managers said.
"They [the Mangalyaan team] also have a couple of instruments that make relevant measurements to what we're doing and vice versa," Bruce Jakosky, principle investigator for MAVEN, told reporters before launch. "We've agreed that after we're both in orbit taking data, we'll figure out what coordination we'll need."
Once in Mars orbit, the new probe will join NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey and the European Space Agency's Mars Express, which are actively studying Mars from orbit now. NASA's Mars rover Curiosity and Opportunity rover are studying Mars from the planet's surface as well.
The MAVEN spacecraft also has the capability to act as a relay point between the rovers on Mars and Earth, which the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey can do as well.
NASA is also planning to send another lander to Mars in 2016. That spacecraft, called InSight, will investigate the way Mars and other rocky planets in the solar system — like Earth — may have formed. The lander will also look into the current seismic environment from the surface of the planet.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency and Russia plan to launch a new orbiter to Mars in 2016, and follow that with a rover launch in 2018 as part of their ExoMars exploration program.
More from SPACE.com:
The Boldest Mars Missions in History
How NASA's MAVEN Mars Orbiter Works (Infographic)
Why Keep Sending Probes To Mars? NASA GSFC Chief Scientist Explains | Video
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